Slobodeniouk leads sublime program with Boston Symphony

October 11, 2019 at 3:34 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Truls Mørk performed Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Dima Slobodeniouk conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Robert Torres

Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 seems to capture the very anxieties of a Europe that was recently torn apart by conflict. But for all of its dark wit and dramatic contrast — elements that still make for engaging listening nearly a century after its composition — the symphony is more often encountered on recordings than in the concert hall.

Fortunately, guest conductor Dima Slobodeniouk, in his subscription debut, made Nielsen’s score the focus of Thursday night’s performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, marking the first time the work has been heard in Symphony Hall since 1993.

Cast in two long movements, the Fifth Symphony walks the wire between reflection and exuberance. Like his Finnish counterpart Jean Sibelius, Nielsen builds his ideas from motivic fragments. But where Sibelius often unfolds his canvases in a seamless expanse, Nielsen changes direction on a dime, the music traversing desolate soundscapes and offering moments of beaming lyricism along the way.

Less sweeping than his more familiar Fourth Symphony, the Fifth is shot through with bristly modernisms while reflecting a general romantic aesthetic. Nielsen even combines disparate elements for dramatic effect. The conclusion of the first movement, for instance, fuses the chattering string figures that open the work with a soaring melody, which builds to frenzied statements before dissolving into a mournful clarinet solo.

Other passages in the score, particularly the robust march that makes up the central section of the first movement, look ahead to the sardonic humor of Shostakovich. A thorny fugue that could have been equally at home in the Soviet composer’s oeuvre courses through a final movement before erupting into a conclusion that brings neither solace nor a sense of resolution.

Slobodeniouk reveled in all of the symphony’s pent-up tension, building its bristly statements into long crescendos that flowered into warm lines. The Russian conductor has a fine feel for Nielsen’s slick architectural designs and astringent textures. Leading with a mix of sweeping and waving gestures, he cast a commanding presence that drew alert playing from the orchestra throughout the work’s 35 minutes.

In a symphony that evolves from understated to complex, details abounded. The opening viola figures flowed like a breeze, underscoring searching woodwind phrases as the music progressed. With propulsive rhythms, the percussionists brought out the prevailing doom in the ensuing march, with string and wind lines surging into a bellicose pomp.

The symphony’s lyrical passages were shaped with a gentle ebb and flow to the tempo, with Slobodeniouk coaxing warmth from the strings. And the fugue began with an almost Haydnesque grace before taking on bristly dissonances on the way to the concluding bars, which the conductor shaped into powerful closing statements.

Slobodeniouk also mined the grandiose and the subtle in Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter, which opened the concert.

One of the composer’s most evocative symphonic poems, Pohjola’s Daughter is an epic journey into the magical northern landscapes described in the Finnish Kalevala, a compendium of 19th Century folkloric verse. 

In a piece with long lines that stem from simple musical fragments, Slobodeniouk led a performance well attuned to every shift in instrumental color. The opening cello solo, played by Blaise Déjardin, took on the air of a chant. Elsewhere, strings complemented the woodwinds with silvery lines. The brass sounded out the heroic theme with a power and grandeur that was never overbearing, while clarinet and English horn solos offered gentle, bucolic highlights.  

The rest of the evening was dedicated to Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which spotlighted Truls Mørk as soloist.

Elgar’s final masterpiece, the Cello Concerto is less a display of technical skill than an essay in sentimentality, and Mørk played with a deep, mahogany tone that conveyed all the emotion locked within Elgar’s rhapsodic diversions. His tempos, especially in the many cadenzas, were broad as he unspooled his lines with an air of freedom.

This proved a reading in which to revel, and Mørk floated tender melodies in each bar of the first movement. In the second, he played with a raspier tone quality that brought a sense of playfulness and urgency. The brief third movement offered a sublime departure as Mørk rendered his part with a vocalist’s grace. The finale bounded with an apt swagger to bring this performance to a grand conclusion.

Slobodeniouk and the orchestra provided a lush, sensitive accompaniment that paved the way for Mørk’s rich and varied tour through Elgar’s beloved score. The cellist’s encore, Pablo Casals’s Song of the Birds, put a finishing touch on a performance marked by interpretive depth and intimacy.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

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